The same cast of characters are still in play to win the starting middle linebacker job.
After three days of fall practice, guys like Kenneth Bynum, Darrin Kirkland, Gavin Bryant, Colton Jumper and Dillon Bates are all among the contenders at the position, and Tennessee's coaching staff has yet to separate a clearcut favorite. Plenty has been said about the candidates, but what exactly is defensive coordinator John Jancek looking for when it comes to picking out a starter in the middle?
The third-year Vols coordinator, who called the race "wide open" Thursday, outlined the qualities he's looking for at the MIKE Thursday after Tennessee's third fall camp practice.
"I'm looking for a leader, someone that has great command on the field, great knowledge of our system and what we want to do," Jancek said. "That's an area for concern, as you guys know. We have a great group there. They're competing extremely hard. We're just going to have to sort this thing out sooner rather than later."
The middle linebacker sets fronts, gives directionals and acts as the communicator of the defense in Tennessee's scheme. On top of having a high football IQ, the MIKE must also possess athleticism and sideline-to-sideline speed as the days of a bulky middle linebacker give way to a more compact ball of speed and power.
"So much of today's game is on the perimeter. The days of the big MIKE linebacker are really extinct, so you've got to have a guy that can play sideline to sideline," Jancek said. "Like we talked about earlier, he has to have that command presence. He is the quarterback of the defense, and certainly like all the other defenders that you put on the field, you want him to be a sure tackler."
But Tennessee isn't just looking for someone to step up in the middle. There's still another starting spot open bookending the chosen MIKE with All-SEC contender Jalen Reeves-Maybin at outside linebacker, and players like freshman Elliot Berry, senior Chris Weatherd and hybrid defensive lineman/linebacker Curt Maggitt will all compete for playing time there.
Jancek said Maggitt will definitely play some outside linebacker when the Vols are in a 4-3 formation, adding an athletic, 6-foot-3, 246-pound force to the defense's second level in its base set.
"When we go base, Curt goes to linebacker," Jancek said. "We'll do that. When you play 10 and 11 personnel, you want that third guy to be a nickelback so [defenses] don't know what you're doing ... But when you do face a team that wants to play with a fullback or an extra tight end in there, then you bring in Curt and he does a great job."
With at least "five or six" legitimate candidates at the middle linebacker position alone, Jancek knows the coaching staff will have to start making calculated decisions on starting reps soon. But the leader of Tennessee's defense realizes the competition will also start to shake itself out on its own once the pads officially come out Saturday.
"Once you get the pads on it kind of starts to separate," he said. "Then we're going to hone it down and start to channel our reps toward the guys who, at that time, give us the best chance to win."